Jake Arrieta, Cubs continue to own Pirates

Jake Arrieta, Cubs continue to own Pirates

Are the Cubs in the Pirates' heads?

It's a question that has been posed by reporters the last two weeks and every time, Joe Maddon and Cubs players have brushed it aside.

Whether the Cubs have a psychological advantage over the Pirates or not, the simple fact of the matter is the head-to-head series has been completely one-sided after the Cubs picked up a 8-2 victory in front of 40,953 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday.

That's now five straight wins over the second-place Pirates to open the 2016 season, as the Cubs have built a sizable lead in the National League Central (nine games over the Pirates, eight over the St. Louis Cardinals, who play the Dodgers Saturday night in Los Angeles). 

In those five wins, the Cubs have outscored the Pirates 37-11.

"That's surprising," Jake Arrieta said. "But every game's a different story, really. We've fared well against them thus far, but we know the quality they have over there and that hasn't changed. 

"We've just been playing some good baseball. We've been throwing well. Bullpen's been great and obviously our offense has been doing their thing. You just want to see your guys stay as hot as they can for as long as possible."

Arrieta actually permitted the Pirates to score a couple runs, but still wound up with a mostly-dominant start, going eight innings and striking out 11 (six of the looking variety).

He seemed to lose things a bit in the fourth inning when he gave up three hits and hit a batter, leading to two runs. That ended Arrieta's streak of 26 straight shutout innings against the Pirates dating back to last September (and including that complete-game shutout in the one-game playoff).

After Arrieta walked Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke on four pitches in the fifth inning, Cubs catcher Miguel Montero went out to have a chat with the reigning NL Cy Young winner.

Montero thought Arrieta was getting too fine with his pitches.

"We had a little talk and I said, 'You know, just throw the ball, man. Just let it go. Let it eat. That's when you're the best,'" Montero said. 

Montero called some of those called strike-three pitches "Hall of Fame" caliber.

"When you catch Jake, you don't need to even be on the same page," Montero said. "Any pitch he wants to throw is gonna be a really good pitch because he's got plus pitches.

"As a catcher, you don't worry about him shaking you off or not because it's gonna be a good one."

The Cubs immediately bailed Arrieta out on Anthony Rizzo's three-run homer in the bottom of the fourth inning. 

Addison Russell stayed hot, chipping in a two-run shot of his own in the sixth inning. He now has nine RBI in his last four games and 13 RBI in his last seven contests.

Dexter Fowler delivered a bloop single to score Miguel Montero later in the sixth and the Cubs rallied for two more runs in the eighth on four straight hits to close out the scoring on the afternoon.

Arrieta is now 7-0 with a 1.29 ERA and 0.84 WHIP on the season.

Since the start of 2015, Arrieta has a ridiculous 0.75 ERA and 0.617 WHIP against the Pirates, striking out 60 and allowing just 28 hits in 60 innings.

Arrieta also became the first pitcher since 1893 to allow three or fewer runs in 28 straight starts. He has won his last 18 decisions and the Cubs have won his last 21 starts, which is a franchise record.

Despite Arrieta's ridiculous run, the Cubs actually see room for their ace to grow and improve.

"He's not been as sharp as he can be yet this year," Joe Maddon said. "I mean that. I'm not trying to be casual about it. He just hasn't been as sharp as he can be. There's another level of sharpness for him."

Montero agreed, though he also offered that Arrieta hasn't lived up to the absurd expectations that have been placed on him after last year's second half.

"He hasn't been as sharp as everybody wants him to be," Montero said. "Maybe he's thinking a little bit too much. He's trying to actually find his arm slot or make every pitch a perfect pitch, and that's pretty much impossible to do.

"... Don't worry about pitching. Just worry about throwing the ball. Because that's when he's actually getting in trouble - when he's nibbling and trying to be too fine with pitches. He doesn't need that. He can throw it down the middle and it's gonna be hard to hit it."

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Cubs first-round pick Nico Hoerner made his debut with the Class-A South Bend Cubs, and he did not disappoint.

The 23-year old shortstop showed off impressive hops during an acrobatic grab in the topf of the second inning in his first game with the South Bend Cubs. Hoerner will surely be an exciting defensive prospect with ability like this.

As far as offense goes, through four at-bats at South Bend, Hoerner is batting .500, and this comes after he hit .318 with a home run and two RBI through seven games with the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs Class A short-season affiliate.

Here is to hoping we continue to see big-time plays from Hoerner.